Laura Bush, first lady of literacy

Salon interviews Stanley Crouch about the future of literature under the new administration.

Published January 20, 2001 8:45PM (EST)

At an Inaugural event Friday at Constitution Hall called "Laura Bush Celebrates America's Authors," Stanley Crouch read from his work, along with Stephen Ambrose, Mary Higgins Clark, Carol Higgins Clark and Stephen Harrigan. Salon called Stanley Crouch afterward to ask him about the prognosis for literary life under the Bush administration.

How did you get invited to this event?

I had gone to the Texas Book Fair twice, and at the second one I met Laura Bush, who was very involved with planning it. So I got a call saying I'd been invited to speak at this event today, and I said OK.

What did you read?

I read from my novel, "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome," and I also made some remarks. I mentioned that in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing here [in Constitution Hall]. So it was doubly significant for me to be there, as a black author. Of course, Marian Anderson went on to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. And just last night, thousands of people turned out to see this multiracial, multicultural event on the mall. And it was all extremely well received.

Did you speak to George W. Bush?

I did. He told me, "I'm ready." I asked him, How are you going to handle this race business? And he said well, his appointee for education secretary is a big supporter of the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, which has been an incredible success educating poor minority children. He wants to use it as a model. He seems confident that it will work.

Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark ... Of all the authors in America, why them?

Well, they covered the popular angle ... nothing wrong with that.

Does it seem to you the Bush administration will do enough for the arts?

I heard Laura Bush talking to Harrigan about her plans to do more book fairs ... I think it'll be alright.

What about the decision not to have a poet at the Inauguration?

How many times has that been done? Do they do it in other countries? Did Tony Blair have one? I'd have to look into that, but it doesn't seem to me like a big concern. Maybe if I was a poet I'd be foaming at the mouth, I don't know. But if people want to say that because Laura Bush is the wife of a Republican that she doesn't care about poetry -- I don't think you can make that case. How many poets did Eleanor Roosevelt bring to the White House? And she was right on all the issues.

Look, I'm fairly sure [Laura Bush] is going to be doing things connected to literacy, making books available, teaching kids how to read -- literature is one thing, but reading is another, and those of us currently paying our rent as writers would probably be better off anyway if there were more focus on literacy rather than on celebrating professional authors. In an ideal world you have both, of course. But we do know this: The secretary of education is well aware of what needs to be done, and I think we've got a heck of a chance to help public schools, to stop this business of kids graduating without being able to read a whole book anyway. What we need is to create more readers.

So you don't feel alarmed, as a writer, by the prospect of the Bush presidency?

Not at all. When Laura Bush was doing these book fairs I went to in Texas, there was no thought of George W. Bush running for president. I don't think we could have anyone better as first lady. Tipper may have been equally good. But she'll be OK. And all of us have to understand that artistic talent does not always beget liberal politics.

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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